Personal Political Activity
By Arthur Drache, C.M. Q.C.
About eighteen months ago David Suzuki, the high profile environmentalist, did a video endorsing the Ontario Liberal government’s environment policies during a the provincial election. Questions were raised as to whether this somehow would be translated into “political activity” by the Suzuki Foundation.a charge made by another NGO opposed to the Liberal policies.
It turned out that Suzuki has stepped down from the Board earlier.
In a piece we wrote for the Not-for-Profit News, we raised a few points.
“First, assuming that Suzuki did step down from the Board, does this mean the Foundation is in the clear?
Second, even if he hadn’t stepped down, does an individual have the right to express his own personal views on a political matter if he makes it clear that his views are personal?
If one is a member of the Board of a charity, what steps if any does he or she have to take to make it clear that persona political activities are not attributable to the organization?
What if one is a high profile supporter of a charity but is not on the board or even a member? Does this status preclude political activities?”
We then wrote:
“In our view common sense suggests that so long as there is a clear distinction between a person speaking as the representative of a charity and in his or her personal capacity, the rules against charities being involved in politics should not be invoked. But as is the case with so many issues, the key element is what, if anything, the CRA says and does. Short of public sanctions against the Suzuki Foundation, we suspect we’ll hear nothing official from the CRA. But this would be a nice topic for a CRA policy statement though we suspect it is an issue that no bureaucrat would want to touch.”
So we were delighted to find that in March, 2013, The CRA did just that.
In a statement posted on its web site, the CRA says:
“Representatives of a charity, such as employees, directors, members, or volunteers, may be involved with an election, political campaign, or any other political activity in their own capacity as individuals, whether during an election period or not.
However, the charity’s resources (for example, office space, supplies, phone, photocopier, computer, publications) must never be used to support that individual’s personal political activities.
The Canada Revenue Agency suggests that charities consider developing a policy and/or guideline to make sure that there is a clear and explicit understanding regarding the use of a charity’s resources for political activities. Such a policy or guideline would address the distinction between a representative’s personal political activities and a charity’s political activities.
Representatives of a charity can publicly voice their views on political issues, but must not use events or functions organized by a charity, the charity’s publications, or any of the charity’s other resources as a platform to voice their political views.
In situations outside charity functions and publications, representatives of a charity, particularly leaders, who want to speak and/or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to indicate that their comments are personal rather than the views of the charity.
This is particularly important in the case of social media, where it may be difficult to tell whether a representative’s messages represent his or her personal views, or a charity’s political activities.
A director of a charity is attending a political party’s national convention as a supporter of that party.
Although the director can participate as an individual and supporter, she must not use any of the charity’s resources to attend the convention, such as by having the charity pay or reimburse her for airfare or accommodations. She must also be careful not to present herself as officially or unofficially representing the charity at the convention, or use her position with the charity to suggest that the charity endorses a candidate or political party.”
It is always possible to nitpick about the specific but this is a welcome public statement and makes it clear that with even a modicum of care, one can separate one’s own political activities from those of organizations with which he or she is involved and that any “costs” will not be charged to the charity’s political activities account or jeopardize its standing where the activity is a clearly partisan one as was the case of Suzuki.